Sabarimala to BJP: Key factors at play in Kerala
What has made these elections more unpredictable is the LDF’s strong comeback in the local body polls held in December 2020, where it won a majority of seats at all levels.
All 140 assembly constituencies (AC) in Kerala will go to polls on April 6. Since 1982, the state has given the Congress and Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI (M) led fronts alternate stints in power. The stage appeared set for a repeat of this trend when the results of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls were declared. The Congress led United Democratic Front (UDF) routed the CPI (M) led Left Democratic Front (LDF), winning 19 of the 20 Lok Sabha constituencies. What has made these elections more unpredictable is the LDF’s strong comeback in the local body polls held in December 2020, where it won a majority of seats at all levels. Here are four factors which could shape the 2021 contest in Kerala.
The rise and rise of Pinarayi Vijayan in Kerala CPI (M)
Unlike its West Bengal counterpart, the CPI (M) in Kerala has been known for a protracted factional struggle. This was epitomised by the rivalry between the current chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan and former chief minister V S Achutanandan (VS), who has withdrawn from active politics in the past few years. The LDF did not contest the 2016 elections with Vijayan as the chief ministerial candidate. If the CSDS-Lokniti survey data of the time is to be believed, Achutanandan was more popular among the voters as the LDF’s chief ministerial face than Vijayan. However, Vijayan has bridged this deficit quickly, and according to the 2019 CSDS-Lokniti data, he was the most popular chief ministerial candidate in the state with a significant lead over Congress leaders.
The CPI (M) in Kerala has seen its share of controversies before elections. In 2006, the party initially denied a ticket to V S Achutanandan, who was the leader of the opposition between 2001 and 2006, but fielded him after widespread protests against this decision. In 2011, the UDF managed a wafer thin majority in Kerala and many within the CPI (M) blamed the Vijayan faction for sabotaging what would have been VS’s second consecutive term as chief minister. That the CPI (M) had to make VS the chairman of Administrative Reforms Committee, a ceremonial cabinet rank after it made Vijayan the chief minister in 2016, suggests that the former was not very happy.
That Vijayan has emerged as the undisputed leader in the Kerala CPI (M) now, might have helped the party in taking potentially high risk high reward decisions such as dropping sitting legislators who have served two consecutive terms. With Vijayan having consolidated his hold over the party in Kerala, the LDF’s success or failure will largely be his doing.
Sabarimala headwinds and governance tailwinds for the LDF?
The incumbent government in Kerala has seen one of the most turbulent terms in the state’s history. Kerala suffered devastating floods in 2018, 2019, and 2020. The Supreme Court’s judgment allowing entry of women of all age-groups to the Hindu shrine of Sabarimala created a huge political storm. While the LDF declared support for the women trying to enter the shrine, both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) opposed the decision and launched agitations against the LDF government. With the Supreme Court agreeing to review the decision, the LDF government has made a tactical retreat on the issue and is seeking conciliation through moves such as suspending of police cases against the protestors. The 2019 CSDS-Lokniti post poll survey shows a huge discontent against the LDF on the Sabarimala issue, and this might have been a big reason for the UDF sweep in 2019.
To be sure, while the Sabarimala issue generated strong headwinds for the LDF, its work on other governance challenges such as flood relief received appreciation from the voters even in the 2019 CSDS-Lokniti survey. Kerala also received a lot of initial appreciation for its approach to the Covid-19 pandemic -- keeping infections under control and announcing a generous relief package. But Covid-19 cases surged in Kerala after September 4, which coincided with the festival of Onam. However, the state has still managed to keep fatalities under control.
With the opposition still raking up the Sabarimala issue, the LDF’s fortunes might be decided by headwinds from the Sabarimala issue and tailwinds from its own record in governance.
The Hindu voter challenge for the CPI (M)
The reason Sabarimala is a big issue for the CPI (M) is that Hindus are more important for the LDF’s prospects than Christians and Muslims, who have historically leaned towards the Congress, although the dominant faction of the Kerala Congress (Mani), which enjoys strong support among the Syrian Christian has joined the LDF after K M Mani’s death in 2019. The CPI (M)’s main support base is among the Ezhavas, an Other Backward Class (OBC) sub-caste, and the Scheduled Caste (SC) groups in the state. While SCs have a share of 9% in the state’s population, Ezhavas are estimated to account for around a fifth of the state’s population. A comparison of support by communities based on from CSDS-Lokniti surveys in 2016 and 2019 underlines the significance of the alienation of Hindu voters and their consolidation behind the Congress more than the BJP in the LDF’s defeat in 2019.
BJP is a massive spoiler in Kerala which can hurt both the LDF and UDF
Kerala is the only state going to polls in this election cycle where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or its allies are not even a claimant to power. Past election statistics vindicate this. The BJP got its first MLA in Kerala in the 2016 elections. Even though its contested vote share reached an all-time high of 15% in 2016, its candidates polled second in only seven ACs. While the BJP might not win a significant number of ACs, it will likely play a big role in deciding the winner by acting as a spoiler. Candidates are defined as a spoilers if they finish third and poll more votes than the victory margin in a given AC. The BJP has been a spoiler in at least 80 out of the 140 ACs in the 2014, 2016 and 2019 elections. For the Lok Sabha polls, results have been disaggregated at the AC-level for this analysis. While the number of seats where the BJP has played spoiler has been consistent, its impact on winners and losers has been very different. In 2016, it was the Congress which lost more ACs because of the BJP playing spoiler. In 2019, the CPI (M) suffered disproportionately because of this.
It remains to be seen how this factor plays out in 2021.